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Two temples in Kyoto

By Jake Hobson

Kyoto. Two days in early November. Two temples, two gardens.

Day 1, November 10th…Myoren-ji, in the rain. I last came here ten or fifteen years ago, and nothing much has changed. I had the place to myself for an hour or so – the weather probably didn’t help, but we’re well off the beaten track here, and I doubt that even in May, when the azaleas flower, the place would ever actually be busy.

Of course, when something is easily accessible in the middle of a city, there’s usually a good reason why it’s off the beaten track, and there’s no hiding the fact that this isn’t really an A-lister. It’s lovely though, and especially so in the rain.

Jake Hobson, on a sunnier day

Jake Hobson
Founder, Niwaki

Myoren-ji with the unidentified evergreen at the back

I’m particularly fond of the enclosed karesansui gravel garden with its collection of Cryptomeria cedars: three fine dai sugi at one end and the rather curious row of straight, slightly oddly pruned cedars, interspersed with winter cherries, that screen the new building behind (a school I think) without actually screening it. Very Japanese, the idea of a see-through screen – or semi-permeable hedges, as I call them – just enough to break up an eyesore without the need for a dense hedge.

Myoren-ji, with its three fine dai sugi at the back
A glimpse of the tsuboniwa courtyard garden at Myoren-ji

Substantial rocks, some nice moss, gravel recently but not obsessively raked, a good row of dumpy azalea blobs (that would, undeniably, be more exciting in May) one very substantial UET (unidentified evergreen tree), of which there are so many in Japan … I presumed this one was a form of holly, mochinoki, Ilex integra, but I’m not so sure now; and stacks of atmosphere.

Padding around in my too-small temple slippers (you have to have visited Japan to know) I came across some lovely screens, and intriguing glimpses of the garden and another smaller courtyard (tsuboniwa) framed by shoji doors and low windows. And then off I headed to track down a warm, dry coffee shop.

Day 2, November 11th. Weather: thankfully dry. Plan: exploring Higashiyama, which takes in the geisha district of Gion, and some spectacular temples in the foothills further to the east.

Deliberately avoiding the more touristy places, like Kiyomizu dera, my target was Shoren-in, another temple I hadn’t visited for a long while.

The gardens here were designed by the stars of their day, the landscape painter Soami and all-round Renaissance man Kobori Enshu, but basically, if mossy knolls are your thing you really must visit.


There’s always a slight lottery in the autumn: have they pruned their pines yet? It makes such a difference, to me at least, and I’m sorry to report that here, on November 11th, they hadn’t.

Most of the time with gardens, I find as a viewer I’m quite happy to ignore what doesn’t look at its best, and focus instead on what does look good (and luckily this seems to be the case with most garden visitors - people tend to see the good stuff and filter out the rest) but when it comes to pines and Japanese gardens, I do prefer them freshly pruned. For now, however, you’ll have to look beyond the slightly messy, lumpy red pines (Pinus densiflora) dotted about the place and just enjoy the moss.

One of the enormous camphor trees

Nosing around the temple grounds, there are a handful of enormous camphor trees (Cinammomum camphora) – real whoppers, said to be over 800 years old - some looking slightly past their best, others still going strong. That’s the joy of visiting temples: however well or lesser known they are, beyond the main garden there’s always a surprise waiting for you, whatever the season or whatever your interests.

Some of my favourites, if you’d like to continue your festive season reading, can be found here:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.